The Jazz.com Blog
June 11, 2008 · 3 comments
Editor's Note: Alan Kurtz, jazz.com's resident curmudgeon, is our fledgling site’s most widely read and fiercely debated blogger. Wherever he goes, he kicks up a storm, and we feel the reverberations around here for days afterward. Say what you will about Alan, you can’t accuse him of not taking his curmudgeonly responsibilities seriously. I thought he might be going too far when he made unkind insinuations about Elvis. After all, a million people visit Graceland every year, and I was worried they might do to jazz.com what the King did to a displeasing TV show. I had unsettling visions of Mr. Kurtz following in the unfortunate footsteps of Robert Goulet.
As it turns out, Elvis fans were hardly fazed by our flagitious blogger. Yet when Kurtz criticized the fraternity of bass players, you could hear the fuss all the way from here to low E. Who would’ve thunk it? Those quiet unassuming folks who hang out with that big piece of furniture over by the drummer . . . they turn out to be high-strung. (Hmm, I think there is a paradox somewhere in that sentence.) They even organized a concerted attack on Kurtz via underground bass web sites (yes, there are such things) and (here’s the kicker) managed to get bass players of the past to rise from the dead to join their cause. Hey bass players, how low can you go? (There may be a bad pun in that sentence.) I know I'll think twice before saying anything against Mr. Bassman again. Start doing that and you will find yourself on (the chords to) “A Slow Boat to China,” when all you want are the changes to “C Jam Blues.” And that is not just an instrument they are playing . . . it is a potentially lethal weapon.
Thank goodness, Mr. Kurtz has finally found something he loves and admires. We can now show jazz.com visitors his warm and fuzzy side, as Alan sings the praises of . . . Smooth Jazz. Readers are invited to share their own opinions by adding their comments or emailing them to firstname.lastname@example.org. But please . . . no correspondence from the afterlife. It gives me the spooks. T.G.
Gloating is unbecoming. Journalists, though—by nature a loutish breed—have lately been at full gloat over the alleged demise of Smooth Jazz. The New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff, for one, observed with barely concealed satisfaction in February that a New York radio station boasting Smooth Jazz's biggest U.S. market share has succumbed to a rock format. Moreover, saxophonist Kenny G—whom Ratliff sarcastically dubs "Regent of the Smoothiverse"—sells fewer records these days and, "as a consequence" has been demoted from headlining arenas to performing at such paupers' dens as Jazz at Lincoln Center.
The Times even supplies an unsolicited epitaph for Smooth Jazz: "For 20 years it has appealed across race and class and gender," Ratliff writes, "partly because it asks so little. It is a physical presence but an intellectual absence. It is an unverified claim." The Times does not divulge what said claim might be, only that it's unverified. And note the casually dismissive nod to Smooth Jazz's decades-long appeal across race, class and gender. Intellectual absence or not, that is no mean feat.
Not to be outdone, PopMatters.com's Will Layman soon chiseled a headstone with "R.I.P. Smooth Jazz, 1985-2008?" By then, a Smooth Jazz radio station in Washington, DC, had met the same rocky fate as its New York counterpart, prompting Washingtonian Will to laud the "ongoing demise" of Smooth Jazz as "a hopeful sign for our civilization." Thus buoyed, Layman unabashedly paraphrases The Times' characterization of Smooth Jazz as "an unverified claim," by calling it "an answer without a question." Ridiculing Smooth Jazz's "overriding aesthetic of cheesiness," Layman scoffs at Smooth Jazz as a mere "product, an assembly line of Twinkies. Easy to eat, hard to digest." But, unable to settle on quite the right mercantile metaphor, he also calls it "nothing more than aural air freshener." Please don't eat the cheesy air freshener. It's harder to digest than Twinkies.
The scribes doth protest too much, methinks. Gloating at a funeral is rude enough, but it's downright churlish to lower the casket while its occupant is still warm. We are reminded of Mark Twain, who after protesting that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated, lived for another 13 years. Most premature obits result, like Twain's, from misinformation. Others stem from wishful thinking by those proclaiming the anticipated demise. The current celebrations of Smooth Jazz's "ongoing demise" are clearly more wishful than misinformed, which only makes them worse. Such self-congratulatory "I Told Ya So" smugness ought to be beneath even the marginal ethics of music journalism.
Besides, what the hell is (or was) Smooth Jazz's biggest sin? One-word answer: popularity. Attracting the masses across race, class and gender lines is lowbrow, and therefore makes Smooth Jazz unfit for critical consumption. Pretentious institutional jazz, by contrast, has snob appeal. Don't get me wrong. Jazz is a great institution. But who wants to be confined to an institution? (Henny Youngman, 1953)
True, Smooth Jazz has exceeded its wretchedness quota. But so has every other subgenre of jazz. Is Kenny G's "Songbird" really more excruciating than, say, John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things"? Hearing "Songbird" is on a par with undergoing root canal without anesthetic. Trane's "My Favorite Things" is like undergoing root canal minus anesthetic while enduring bag- pipes on headphones. At least "Songbird" is over in 5 minutes. "My Favorite Things" drones punishingly on for nearly a quarter of an hour. Yet despite its excesses, Smooth Jazz kept a brand name before the public for two decades during which jazz might otherwise have gone the way of Green Stamps, Pan Am, Nash Rambler, Tandy and LSD.
There is also something to be said about the virtues of background music. Generally speaking, elevator music has been given the shaft. (Okay, it's an unforgivable pun. But, hey, I'm talkin' about Shaft!) According to Joseph Lanza's Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong, music was first piped into these claustrophobic enclosures in 1922 to calm riders for whom the elevator was a new and unproven technology. Obviously, music that does not scream for undivided attention is subliminally more reassuring than distracting fare. (Do you really want to hear Sun Ra in the elevator?) Smooth Jazz is thus part of a socially useful tradition, which is more than can be said about jazz critics.
There is, of course, a more sinister possibility—namely a hoax. That would not be unprecedented. In 1999, pianist/prankster Friedrich Gulda faxed a bulletin to the Austrian News Agency reporting that he had only moments before died at the Zurich airport. Following publication, he announced that he was very much alive and, to prove it, would be staging a Resurrection Recital accompanied by go-go dancers. At this point, perhaps the only thing that could annoy the critical establishment more than Smooth Jazz itself is for Kenny G, like Dracula at sundown, to spring upright in his coffin, shake the cobwebs from his curly locks, and commence a Resurrection Recital of "Songbird." Payback is a kitsch.
This blog entry posted by Alan Kurtz.